As susceptible as the next guy to hating the Times for running pieces I disagree with, I used as kindling to start a trash fire the recent Times page in which K-Sue Park informed the ACLU it needed to rethink free speech. Then, guided by a 2010 article about the history of the Times op-ed page written by University of Maine professor of journalism Michael Socolow, I returned to my senses. His deeply researched piece, “A Profitable Public Sphere: The Creation of the New York Times Op-Ed Page,” demonstrates that from the time its top editors started thinking about adding an op-ed section in the early 1960s, the whole idea was to trigger reader insurrections with outrageous views.
Before the Times op-ed page debuted on Sept. 21, 1970, obituaries occupied the page opposite the editorials. John B. Oakes, the Times editor who almost willed the page into existence, believed that a newspaper’s “deepest responsibility” was to make readers think. “The minute we begin to insist that everyone think the same way we think, our democratic way of life is in danger,” he said in a 1954 speech.
As the Times op-ed page took shape, its editors assembled a list of prospective authors and subjects they could address. One list, preserved in the Harrison Salisbury Papers at Columbia University, proposes soliciting pieces from Communist Party USA head Gus Hall, John Bircher Society leader Robert Welch, oil man and right-winger H.L. Hunt, labor radical Harry Bridges and revolutionary Angela Davis. The page’s concept was to express ideas and opinions the reader couldn’t find on the editorial page or elsewhere in the newspaper. The range and ambition of the page were such that one of the early editors on the page, John Van Doorn, tried (and failed) to hire Tupac Shakur’s mother, Afeni Shakur, as an editor in 1971, as Socolow writes elsewhere.